How To Stop Picking At Your Skin

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There are three types of skin-having people: those who actually heeded their mothers’ constant nagging, never squeezing at a bump, and let scabs survive full-term; those who maybe scratch at a mosquito bite one too many times before realizing the error of their ways and opt for some hydrocortisone, who only occasionally pop a zit—as a very last resort, when and if the little guy is ready; and then there are those who plant themselves in front of their billion-watt, 10x magnifying mirror, inspecting and poking and squeezing and prodding—mostly at stuff that barely even qualifies as a clogged pore, until, an hour later, they’ve completely annihilated the surface of their skin, left it swollen and red, shaking their fists at the heavens screaming, ‘DEAR GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE?!”

Compulsive skin picking, sometimes referred to as dermatillomania, is like less-than-sober 3AM loops through the Whataburger drive-thru: kind of embarrassing, potentially harmful, and most people don’t like to admit they do it, let alone reach out for help. But unlike mindless late-night treks for Honey Butter Chicken Biscuits, we’re here to offer some guidance. Or actually, Dr. Amy Wechsler, double board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist, is:

“Some people aren’t pickers and some are—you know scabs, pimples, you name it—from when they were kids, and that kind of picking is made worse during times of stress and anxiety. But picking and doing self-surgery is so bad. It can leave marks and scars, and can even be on the OCD spectrum, which is an anxiety disorder. You can cause an infection, and you can actually make the pimples worse. When you are squashing a pimple, you’re often pushing stuff back down into your skin when you squeeze. So even if you get that one out, you might be irritating another one right next door to it. Most people are not so extreme where they are doing it everyday for a long time. It’s just when they are particularly stressed out, or they’re sleep-deprived, or their skin is really breaking out and it hasn’t in a long time. The first thing I do, obviously, is try to fix whatever the skin issue is, so if someone is breaking out I treat their acne aggressively so there is nothing to pick at, but that can take a couple of months before it gets better so in the meantime, there are a few things I have people try...”

Enlist A Nagging Friend
It’s hard to stop, and people lose sense of time, so I have them enlist a partner. Unless someone lives by themselves—when you live on your own, it’s a lot harder—it will be whoever your roommate is, a spouse, a boyfriend, a good friend, a sister, whatever. You have to tell them, ‘I’m having this problem; I’m picking my skin and you can’t let me be alone in the bathroom for more than five minutes. Knock on the door, check on me. I’m not going to mind.’”

The Post-It Method
“What I will also do—this might sound goofy—but I will have people put up sticky notes in the bathroom that say things like, ‘Don’t pick!’, ‘Stop picking!’, ‘Don’t touch your face!’ People get into this state where they are not really mindful of what they’re doing, so that kind of a note helps jolt them back into reality like, ‘Ah, I have to stop that,’ is actually really helpful.”

Throw Out Your Tools
“Sometimes people are using tools like tweezers or needles, and I make them throw them out. And if they have a magnifying mirror, I usually make them toss it. It makes a big difference, and your skin never looks like what it looks like in a magnifying mirror. That’s not reality at all.”

Up Your Self-Awareness
A lot of people have this type-A personality where they are trying to control their lives and take charge, and these people think they are making themselves better when they pick at their skin. And it might be something where—let’s say that the period of stress that caused you to pick at your skin goes away—inevitably, you will get stressed out again at some point, and that will be your vulnerable spot. You might be tempted to do it again. So it’s all about learning who you are and being more mindful and self-aware and asking for help if you need it. You have to realize that you are not actually making anything better; you’re just making things worse.”

Consider Laser Hair Removal
For girls who pick on their legs and things like that when they get ingrown hairs, it’s the same problem. Ingrown hairs are caused by a lot of different factors. One, someone could have just extremely thick hair. Or if they wax or use a razor with too many blades on it, the hair is pulled out really deep and will inevitably curl a little bit. But you want your hair to curl when it’s sticking back out of your skin, not when it’s still underneath your skin. It’s like when a splinter is stuck beneath the skin, and you have a body reaction, which is an irritated ingrown hair. So you have to figure out how to remove your hair in a way that decreases your ingrowns. The best way to do that is laser hair removal. If you have no hair, you have no ingrown. Ingrown hairs are usually pretty thick and the laser hair removal damages the follicle, making the follicle and hair narrower before eventually making it completely go away.”

Seek Professional Help
If picking at your skin really is a problem, go talk to somebody. People are sometimes embarrassed and feel like they’re the only one doing it, but it’s very common. They are not going to be judged. Your doctor will have treatments and other things to do for it. If it’s preoccupying you during the day, or if you find yourself alone doing it everyday, and are having to wear more and more cover-up just to conceal the damage you’ve done, you should ask for help.”

Clearasil ad by Rolando Ancheyta.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • http://www.ceejayell.blogspot.co.uk Carly Jade

    This is one hundred percent me; I'm an OCD picker. I sit and stare at every opportunity I can and examine my skin all over my body. I know it's bad, and in my head I'll be saying "Just leave it..." but often, before I've even finished the sentence, my hands are up there scratching! I've been to my doctors, and am going again in three months to see how I'm improving... Fingers crossed!

    http://www.ceejayell.blogspot.co.uk

    • Sabrina Stabbath

      I hear you. I'm a compulsive face and hand picker. I also chew on the inside of my mouth (dermatophagia) and have since childhood. I now have people slap my hands when I'm doing it. Looking like a weirdo isn't enough to deter me from doing in public unfortunately.

  • http://brushandbullet.com/ Teresa

    It's like you KNEW I was picking at my chin just then.

  • Julia

    Bless the glossy gods that made Annie a part of this team.

    • Adrienne Angelos

      I knew it was her as soon as she name-dropped Whataburger. Bless the South.

  • Mady

    Advice from an actual expert! Yes!

  • Erica Rae Deutsch

    hahaha "3am loops through whataburger"..i'm not saying i have and i'm not saying i haven't

  • Becky

    i think it's important to add that, yes, saying "NO!" to yourself and trying to kill the habit/symptom, if you (like me) have used skin picking as a way of coping with anxiety for a long time, the anxiety needs to be addressed too. therapy has been a great help for me and I would sincerely recommend not seeing picking as a singular "problem" but as part of a bigger pattern.

  • Aly

    Thank you for this! Suffering from bouts of adult hormonal acne. As soon as I see a big meanie, I want to exterminate it. While skin-picking alone isn't necessarily an indication of OCD, I'm noticing that I might fall somewhere on the spectrum, or maybe it's just my heightened anxiety levels. Until recently I had been lucky to avoid any scarring, but during a very stressful time I created an actual open wound that took much longer to heal. It's a minor scar that I don't think will go away without a dermatologist's peel. I think about it each time I need to treat a breakout. I think it's good policy to bribe yourself. If I don't pick and let the pimple run its full course, I'll buy myself a new lippie...

    • M Meador

      Am trying this trick! Not that I need anymore makeup/ skin care products etc. but it SURE beats picking at my skin and making it scar.

  • Savannah Scorpion

    I have a bad habit of picking the skin around my thumbs, and I work in menswear, where bleeding over the merchandise is frowned upon. Before every shift, I put band-aids on my thumbs over the picked skin to keep me from picking at work.

  • Katie Sharry

    I have the double whammy skin-picking hair pulling compulsion...I was an ardent skin picker all through high school and college, and for a short time thought I had it "under control" until I realized that living alone in grad school allowed me to begin compulsively pulling out my (head) hair. Not so much that I get bald spots or anything, but I definitely transferred one compulsion to another! I had improved on that front as well for a few months, but I am under a lot of stress now and I basically put my hair up all the time to keep myself from touching it and exfoliate my face like crazy so there are no bumps/scabs to fuss over. I would say its been 55% successful...but its true, you have to be really firm with yourself! And is just. so. hard. to resist. Having a roommate would probably help.

  • http://vanitytalkbeauty.blogspot.com Addison Cain

    I am the worst with spots on my forehead. If I get a clogged pore or a blackhead up there, I will pick at until I've accidentally scraped off skin or something. Gross.

  • http://www.daisychainsanddreamers.wordpress.com/ Sarah

    So so true! I'm gunna put a post it note on my mirror now :)

    Sarah

  • Kat

    This is excellent, now please do one on not pulling out your eyebrows/eyelashes!

  • lalala

    I am totally a picker, I've had a lot of good progress on not touching my face that much because I'm so sensitive about my face right now but I still have some little scars because I've picked a lot of blackheads in high school. But now, I'm always picking those ingrown hair I'm actually looking for them all over my body, if I have any bump on my legs whatsoever, I pick it. Even if I can't see what it looks like. It may be an allergic reaction to something, like a regular red bump, but I can't stop trying to pick it, thinking maybe something will come out from it. I have lots of scars in my legs, especially my thighs because of this. Now I'm really obsessed with back, I'm always itching my back to find a bump, again.

    And also it's not picking but I have this dandruff issue so a lot like picking my blackheads and ingrown hair, I'm always itching my hair and peel dandruffs out of the skin of my head. Those things get really worse like you said, when I'm stressed out. I don't think I will be seeing a doctor about it but I'm gonna try the other things that you said.

    I'm also thinking about laser hair removal but it's really expensive and I'm considered about the health risks, people says there isn't any but I'm still worried. Does anybody know about this?

    • pamb

      If you subscribe to Groupon or similar services, salons often run specials. I had laser done on my bikini and underarms at two different salons about 4 years ago. The bikini worked better than the underarm, but I'd still recommend it.

  • Spot

    THANK YOU for this one, Dr. Amy! On a bad day - to quell my compulsion to examine and pick, I turn my bathroom faucet on quickly and splash some water on my face to begin my usual skincare routine. It's enough to make me feel like I've made too much headway in the right direction to turn back and destroy. I go through with cleansing and finish with a clay mask, which hides my skin completely so that I look like a beeeeautiful statue. If I'm feeling very antsy, I dump out my anxieties with some vigorous leaping and jumping followed by a snuff of lavender. By the time I'm softening the dry mask with a warm wet towel, I feel GREAT (I did it!)! It's taken me a while to figure out how to take care but I've finally found some ways to deal.

    P.S. I am a long-time user of 'Duac topical gel' (perscription benzoyl peroxide / clindamycin antibiotic cream for acne), I really enjoy St. Ive's face washes, and I am totally devoted to Lancôme's 'Bienfait Multi-Vital SPF30' (day moisture / rich and protective) and 'Bienfait Aqua Vital' (night moisture / it's lovely and light).
    Don't loose heart! Keep trying, friends and pals! We can do it!

  • Genevieve

    Thanks, I really appreciated your addressing this. The specifics are helpful, as is the reminder that what might be needed is a professional, but what was most enlightening to me is the statement that this is a common habit. It's something I've always found really embarrassing so it's reassuring to hear that it's not just me.

  • Guest

    Here are some tools that have helped me:
    1) tell your boyfriend or roommate that you have a problem and you need their help. If I'm brushing my teeth in the bathroom, my boyfriend will walk by and turn off the lights. That way I won't be tempted to investigate every single pore on my face and be tempted to pick...
    2) Wear sunglasses in the bathroom. I hang my sunglasses on the outside of my bathroom door so I can put them on if I feel the urge to pick. If I'm having a particularly stressful day or week, I put them on before I even enter the bathroom because I know what might happen.
    3) Do something good for your skin every day- pore strips, masks, facials, whatever. I have lots of masks and I use one almost every day (sometimes I'll just put honey or yogurt on my face since I can't use a deep cleaning mask every day). It keeps my hands off my face (since it's covered) and it makes me feel like I'm taking care of my skin so I shouldn't be picking!
    4) If you live alone, have someone send you reminders not to pick. I never asked him to do this, but if I'm staying at my place, my boyfriend sometimes sends me texts right around the time I should be getting ready for bed saying "don't pick!" If I was picking, I know to shut off the lights or put on sunglasses, whatever it takes.
    5) do something else with your hands. Paint your nails, knit, do origami, write in a notebook.

  • http://www.clevergirlreviews.com/ Clever Girl Reviews

    I've actually naturally grown out of it. For me when there is little to pick at I don't feel the need. When my face looked like a pizza, I felt obligated to do so. I realize 90% of the time this makes it worse but I know that as an adult, not as a teen!

  • http://www.lelivingandco.blogspot.ca/ Le Living and co.

    It really is a compulsion to pick and it can be very embarrassing. I have the ingrown hair problem on my legs and I can totally relate. Great tips and thank you for sharing!

  • pamb

    I agree about the magnifying mirror! No one can look that close at your skin unless you are on HD TV. I do swear by looking at your skin critically in different forms of light; you never know what you'll see. For example, for some reason, the light in my parents' bathroom lets me see every stray hair, so I always touch up my eyebrows when I visit. Sometimes hotel bathrooms are good, too.

    I am an occasional picker, but I have to reform myself, as my daughter is a tween, and I don't want her picking (ha!) up any bad habits. No picking for her!

  • nico

    annie keep up with articles like this! obv i love reading about how amazonian models never really workout or how much they love la mer- but its so nice to be able to relate/get genuine advice from these articles and these past few months your pieces have been spot on! loving it

  • F

    The thing about "your skin never looks like what it looks like in a magnifying mirror. That’s not reality at all." made me so happy. I have far from perfect skin, I have been suffering from hormonal acne and I have a bunch of scars from when I used to pick. It's cleared up a lotnow thank god but it's still far from perfect, I onyl think it's "good" because I know how bad it used to be. But trust me you don't look the same in reality as you look in a magnifying mirror, and most places do not have bathroom lighting. And hey, people don't usually care about your skin. They usually look once and then forget about it. Others don't notice at all. Stay strong ladies <3

  • Megan❤Biles

    Also known as the main reason my nails are painted 24/7. They see the picking, not my face.

  • spectacularviews

    This is what I do. When I have the urge to pick I paint my nails so I physically can't touch my face without messing up my manicure.

  • fionnuala wilson

    This is totally me and I never relised that other people did this too until reading this, this post has been so useful.

  • wilsonq

    Thing with picking is that, you know most of the times u might end up making ur skin worse, but there were also that couple of times it actually HELPED make things better FASTER......so its that psychology that everytime u pick, ur gonna hope it would repeat that time when u had successfully done so....but then usually by the time it's too late......it would be too late........also when you know u have a chance of making the bump flat so when u cover it with concealer, its not bumpy, u would then be motivated to try to squeeze everything out....without thinking ahead that, it could become worse....swollen.....red......bloody......top layer skin coming off............the dilemma of picking

  • bruh

    Are there any treatments that help heal the many scars left behind on the face?

  • GG

    It's true that post-its, etc. won't fix everything, but a lot of these tips added together (throwing away tools, for example) can make a huge difference, even for a person on the OCD spectrum. I pick my skin compulsively (and have OCD), and these little tricks do help minimize some of the damage I would otherwise do to my skin. This article was great for reminding me of helpful things to do and of the fact that there are a lot of people out there with similar issues.

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